The old is new

One reason I love reading history is how often you find reflections of current worries. This isn’t necessarily good, obviously. Some things should have been left in the dust (notably gig-economy feudalism).

But one thing it does offer is perspective

I’ve just cracked open The Invention of News, for instance, and have immediately been slapped with a couple of things that should be familiar.

The first is that information networks in the pre-information age could only be sustainably maintained by the already rich and powerful. These were run either to ensure a supply of valuable information for private consumption, or the lower quality and somewhat biased stuff to influence others.

Sound familiar?

The next is that early newspapers existed in such an information rich environment, fighting against other practices and needs, that journalism and journalists themselves were not sustainable.

At the beginning of the fourteenth century only the rich and powerful could afford the cost of maintaining a network of couriers; as a result, those in positions of power largely determined what information should be shared with other citizens…

…this was not yet the age of the professional journalist. The information they provided was hardly ever valuable enough to command the exclusive service of one particular paper. Most sold their stories to whomever would have them. It is only with the great events at the end of the eighteenth century–the struggle for press freedom in England and the French and American revolutions–that newspapers found a strong editorial voice, and at that point a career in journalism became a real possibility. But it was always hazardous. As many of the celebrity politician writers of the French Revolution found, a career could be cut short (quite literally) by a turn in political fortunes. At least these men lived and died in a blaze of publicity. For others, the drones of the trade, snuffling up rumour for scraps, penury was a more mundane danger.

As a journalist I feel both of these but am especially interested in how they relate. As the sheer volume of information has increased, and the value captured by new forms of distribution, the value has declined.

Some information, obviously, is still valuable, but it is increasingly chased behind paywalls or funded for other reasons.

And journalists, especially, are finding it tough. Jobs have disappeared and pay slowed. “Exclusivity” doesn’t really mean anything anymore, and so neither does paying.

Will be interesting to see the trends that led away from this, as the industry matured. Can they be recaptured or substituted?

As always my emphasis

The perversion of what makes a ‘story’

There’s a graph doing the rounds that spectacularly illutrates how context rules coverage. Taken from Our World in Data, it compares actual causes of death to Google searches and media coverage.

From the accompanying blog post:

…around one-third of the considered causes of deaths resulted from heart disease, yet this cause of death receives only 2-3 percent of Google searches and media coverage…

…When it comes to the media coverage on causes of death, violent deaths account for more than two-thirds of coverage in the New York Times and The Guardian but account for less than 3 percent of the total deaths in the US…

(My emphasis)

The stories we tell shape our reality, our concerns and actions. This places a lot of power in who and what determines a story, especially the ideological, financial and technological (etc.) incentives and constraints.

All of the journalists I’ve ever met have been hyper-concerned with being accurate. But this seems to relate more to the “facts” within the story, rather than the choice of what to cover.

Over-inflating the salience of a violent death is surely as misleading?